Rory McIlroy incurred a two-stroke penalty at Liberty National last week, but the penalty was subsequently reversed!
Friday, McIlroy played hole 14 (par-3 hole) and his ball ended in the greenside bunker. He thought he saw a loose stone lying right behind the ball, so he grabbed it to remove it. Immediately after he realized that it was not a stone but a clump of sand.
McIlroy called for a Rules official, and after a few questions and calls, he was told that it was a two-stroke penalty:
Rory McIlroy thought he was removing a loose impediment from a bunker, but then realized it was just sand.
He alerted a rules official and was given a two-shot penalty.
He was three back of the lead at the time of the penalty. pic.twitter.com/Ayp8zWw9Ei
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) 9. august 2019
Subsequently the penalty was reversed, though, with the reasoning that there was no improvement.
The Rules of Golf.
Let us try to find out what the Rules of Golf says about this very interesting situation:
- Rule 12.2b. A player is allowed to intentionally touch the sand in a bunker with his/her hand, as long as it is not with an intention to test the sand. Since McIlroy’s intention not was to test the sand, he did not incur any penalty under this Rule.
- Under the same Rule: You are not allowed to touch the sand right in front of or right behind the ball with a club, but it is OK with a hand (as long as it is not with an intention to test the sand).
- Rule 8.1. Under this Rule you are not allowed to improve certain “forbidden areas” (such as the area of your intended swing or your intended stance). (Intention is irrelevant – you are penalized no matter if your intention was to improve or not.) So that is why McIlroy was asked whether or not there was an improvement of one of these areas.
- According to GolfDigest, McIlroy answered: “I’m comfortable saying that I didn’t improve anything”.
- McIlroy furthermore stated, that he did not lift the clump; he merely touched it.
- For me it looks like on the video that he lifted the clump with two fingers, and that he looked at his hand right after that (to see what it was), but it is not clear from the video – thus we must trust his word, that he did not lift it.
- Therefore, since there is no improvement, there is no penalty.
- If you touch a clump of sand, often it would break, and thereby you could discuss whether or not there is a penalty – see below. I am unaware, if they asked him about that or considered it.
- If he had removed it or crushed it:
- The starting point would be, that there is a penalty.
- BUT: The improvement is not big. The Definition of “Improve” states, that it is only an illegal improvement, if the player “… gains a potential advantage for a stroke“.
- Interpretation 8.1a/1 and 8.1a/2 give some examples of when there is a “potential advantage”. And the conclusion must be, that tiny improvements are allowed.
- Thus: No penalty to McIlroy since the improvement was tiny.
A clump of sand: Is that a loose impediment? It seems like USGA would say “no”, since there is no penalty for improving a forbidden area, if the improvement is caused by the player when removing a loose impediment. In other words: Since they would even consider penalizing him under Rule 8.1 they must think it is not a loose impediment.
The Definition of “Loose impediments” states that Loose impediments are…”Any unattached natural object such as…Clumps of compacted soil (including aeration plugs)“. But the definition also states that “Sand and Loose Soil are not loose impediments“. I would interpret this to mean that all sand is not loose impediments – even if it comes in clumps (otherwise they should have written “Loose sand and loose soil”).
Feel free to let me know in the comment section below (“Leave a reply”) if you agree or disagree! (Would McIlroy have been penalized under Rule 8.1, if he had removed the clump of sand with his club)?
PS: By the way please notice how polite McIlroy was, and that he did not at all got upset, when he was told about the penalty. Class act. Many other players could learn from such a behaviour.